Leadership lessons from Pop

Gregg-Popovich-507433-1-402By any metric you’d like to use, Gregg Popovich is one of the most successful NBA coaches of all time. He has won 4 NBA championships and keeps the San Antonio Spurs competitive and in the hunt for a title every year. I think some recent comments to the San Antonio Express-News reveals a little bit of the secret to how he has been so successful:

Sometimes in timeouts I’ll say, ‘I’ve got nothing for you. What do you want me to do? We just turned it over six times. Everybody’s holding the ball. What else do you want me to do here? Figure it out, and I’ll get up and walk away. Because it’s true. There’s nothing else I can do for them. I can give them some bulls—, and act like I’m a coach or something, but it’s on them.


I have observed that sometimes people in leadership positions fail to put people in situations where they can succeed, and then put the blame on the individual who ultimately fails. The reality is that there has been a failure in leadership. In basketball terms, the play was drawn up poorly, so why blame the player who sought to execute the poor play? What Coach Popovich is pointing out is that the leader isn’t always the one who can come up with the best play, and that he allows his players to take an active role in planning for success. Clearly Coach Popovich understands that leadership isn’t about power, it is about empowering.

I think competitive character people don’t want to be manipulated constantly to do what one individual wants them to do. It’s a great feeling when players get together and do things as a group. Whatever can be done to empower those people.

More than anything, leaders are facilitators. This is why leaders who fall into the trap of flexing muscles and seeking to manipulate ultimately fail, they destroy the very people who can bring success to the organization. Coach Popovich sums this point up beautifully:

It’s a players’ game and they’ve got to perform. The better you can get that across, the more they take over and the more smoothly it runs. Then you interject here or there. You call a play during the game at some point or make a substitution, that kind of thing that helps the team win. But they basically have to take charge or you never get to the top of the mountain.

With true leadership the battle becomes personal because it isn’t about the coach, it is about the team.